by Pat O’Regan, Sierra Club Volunteer
On a Saturday morning, during the election campaign of 2004, I got involved in a door-knocking effort for the Sierra Club on behalf of the environment. We were encouraging voters to think of the environment when they made their choices. I was going door to door with Ben, another member of the Club. He did much of the talking, which was fine with me. As I vividly recall, it struck me as odd at the time that at every door Ben brought up the topic of Global Warming. I knew what he was talking about, of course, but the issue for me was vague and not concerning. Ben had a way about him – people listened; I learned something. But the issue of Global Warming didn’t get home much to me at the time.
My awareness of the problem dawned on me gradually, over several years. I recall the front page Time magazine article on Global Warming – “Be Worried. Be Very Worried,” which I read with a sinking feeling. The Arctic, Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets were melting. The summer sea ice in the Arctic would be gone by the middle of the century. “Is this really happening?” I thought. The article proposed solutions: 1) Cap and trade energy policy, 2) Efficiency in the use of energy, and 3) Innovation in the development of new energy sources. Even then, I wondered about the difficulty of getting people to change because of the prospect of damage to the planet –at some future time. Would people change for the sake of their grandkids? It is human nature: Today is fine, tomorrow will be fine, and the day after that, too. Why worry? Why crimp my life-style for no good reason? Should I drive less, use air-conditioning less, and what not, for the benefit of the environment? Baloney!
About the same time, I went on a hiking outing to Afton State Park with members of the Club. Will Steger, the polar explorer, came along as a guest and commentator. He talked about Global Warming. It sounded serious. Places in the Antarctic, where Will had run his dog sled back in the 80’s, now were beneath ten feet of water. Large chunks of the Larsen Ice Shelf had broken off and drifted north to melt in the southern seas. The indigenous people of the North knew that something bad was happening to their surroundings.
Sierra Club Outing with Will Steger
A year or so after that, I attended a Global Warming conference at Pax Christi church. One of the speakers was Paul Douglas, the local weatherman. It was my first live exposure to the scientific details of Global Warming. The accumulation of evidence seemed to me beyond dispute: the level of CO2 in the atmosphere was higher than it had been in 640,000 years, temperatures had risen over one degree Fahrenheit since records had been kept, the Greenhouse Effect had been known for over 300 years, the rise in the level of CO2 and the increase in temperature track perfectly on a graph, in the north and south – the planet is melting. Not the incidence but the amount of human involvement in Global Warming was the only question.
For the first time, I learned about the dreaded feedback loop of Global Warming: Warming melts the permafrost, which then rots and releases methane gas. Methane degrades to a lot of CO2; more warming results, and so more melting, rotting and release of methane. And so forth. It can’t be stopped.
Driving home from the conference, it occurred to me – In the long run Global Warming may be the single greatest problem facing the human race. Long after Afghanistan, high unemployment and the national debt have been dealt with and forgotten, Global Warming will be there – devastating the planet. That winter, I took a driving vacation to Florida. I recall the signs in the Everglades “Three Feet Above Sea Level,” Four Feet Above Sea Level.” This state would be under water, I thought. In fact, all of Florida would be under water, along with parts of Virginia, New York, Louisiana and so forth. Not to mention what would happen to much of Africa and places like Bangladesh.
Yes, the moral question of Global Warming was also an issue. The people least responsible for it would be hurt by it the most.
I have a graduate degree in science (MS in Zoology). I understand something about the scientific method and the way scientists work and think. I have listened to many of them give presentations. The difference in the presentations when the scientists have enough data to be confident in the results and when they don’t is, as Mark Twain put it, “like the difference between lightning and the lightning bug.” Not long after the Pax Christi conference, I heard talks that stuck in my mind by two scientists – Jonathan Foley, director of the Institute on the Environment at the University, live, and Ralph Cicerone, past President of the National Academy of Sciences, on TV. Their self-assurance was unmistakable. Those guys were convinced they had the goods. Global Warming was happening, it was speeding up, and it was, in good part, caused by human release of greenhouse gases. Their charts, graphs and photographs were compelling, unforgettable.
The problem, I now understood, was dire. But at this time – 2005 and 2006 – I thought progress in the struggle against Global Warming was being made. These were the days I was part of a group of the local chapter of the Club working on Light Rail Transit and Global Warming. Led by Margaret Levin, we were very active. Many times, we talked to local legislative leaders and county commissioners – and they listened. I could feel the impact we were having. People in power knew of us and what we were doing. I thought the struggle would be hard, but we could do it.
2005 Sierra Club Light Rail campaign meeting
At this time, as well, I heard Will Steger and Lee Frelich, director of the Center for Hardwood Ecology at the University, give talks before the state legislature. Global Warming seemed to be on center stage. Green cities and energy efficiency were getting attention. Maybe Global Warming, I thought, could yet be stopped.
I could never understand the Global Warming naysayers. Now they were becoming maddening. To read a column on Global Warming by George Will, otherwise an intelligent writer, is enough to drive a guy with even a little science in his head up a wall. The inestimable Senator Inhofe of Oklahoma falls in the same category. Some people will not be convinced, no matter what the data shows. I heard a live presentation on Global Warming by another scientist, Deborah Swackhamer, the co-director of the Water Resources Center at the University. She was past the point of disputing the issue. It was, to her, settled science. How then can so many people not see the scientific difference between a Will and a Swackhamer?
In the face of the abounding ignorance on Global Warming, I recall how enlightening it was to listen to a talk by Will Steger at the local community college a couple years ago. Enlivened by videos, his talk showed never-to-be-forgotten footage of the collapse of a cubic mile of Greenland ice – 74 minutes time-lapsed to 20 seconds. Or the skeletal remains of a Polar Bear. Or torrents of melt-water pouring from the glaciers. In the same regard, more recently, an Internet interview I had with John Abraham, a scientist leading the fight to get out the word on Global Warming and combat the naysayers, was encouraging – giving hope for the future. How can these people lose?
We’ve been here before. A wonderful article in a recent issue of National Geographic looks at the episode of Global Warming that occurred at the junction of the Paleocene and Eocene epochs, some 56 million years ago. For some unknown reason, a huge amount greenhouse gas was released – perhaps methane from the sea floor – at that time. In two thousand years – an eye-blink in geologic terms – the temperature soared ten degrees Fahrenheit. The effects on the planet were catastrophic. Florida was under water, all the expected effects of Global Warming occurred: violent weather, insect infestations, increased precipitation, and so forth. But the planet is self-correcting. The CO2 was eventually washed out of the atmosphere by rainfall into the oceans, where it combined with Ca++ to form calcium carbonate, which sank to the bottom of the sea as limestone (thus, all the limestone deposits we use as building material). This took some 200,000 to 300,000 years (again a geologic eye-blink).
That’s what we’re facing. The difference now is that the warming is happening at ten times the rate of the Paleocene-Eocene time. The planet will again correct itself. But doesn’t two to three hundred thousand years seem like a long time? Once the damage has been done, that is what it will take to correct it.
With the accumulation of data on Global Warming, scientists are becoming more convinced than ever of its progress and causes. One study showed that the human contribution to Global Warming is 53%. Now scientists even talk about current events as being part of the Global Warming trend. The past year has been the warmest on record. All across the country, the ratio of record highs to record lows between 2000 and 2010 is ten times what it was before Global Warming set in. The incidence of catastrophic events is increasing – dryness and fires out west, the drought in Texas, severe weather along the east coast. All this, the scientists now say, is, with a high probability, a direct result of the human effect on the planet.
The question is settled. But in the face of human nature – ignorance, a tendency to stay the same, an inclination to deny something bad is happening – what can be done? One is inclined to be resigned to the fate of the planet. Should I not drive to the library tonight to read? Should I shorten my shower by a minute or two? Should I turn off the lights downstairs when I am upstairs?
There are things that can be done. Join with other people concerned about the problem. You have impact. Write your Congressman or County Commissioner. Tell them you are concerned about Global Warming.
Can this battle be won? We owe it to future generations to think that it can. And, we owe it to future generations to do something about it.